Well, if William Shakespeare is correct that “the eyes are the window to the soul,” then the candidates’ eye contact with the American people told a very revealing and contrasting story during the second and final presidential debate of 2020.
The disparity between Biden and Trump was noticeable right from the very first question. Their respective eye contact during their answers were exact opposites in terms of what they non-verbally communicated. Biden directed his first few words to Kristen Welker at the moderator’s desk and then turned directly to the American people and said, “If you hear nothing else
that I’ve said tonight, hear this. Anyone who is responsible for not taking control … for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America.”
On that same question, Trump looked to the camera for only a fleeting glance. He couldn’t hold his eye contact, perhaps because what he had to say was not directed at real people battling real anxiety. It was about his claims of accomplishment. “So, as you know, 2.2 million
people modeled out were expected to die. We closed up the greatest economy in the world in order to fight this horrible disease that came from China.”
Their polar opposite deliveries encapsulate why these two men are perceived so differently. According to a study
by a team of Japanese scientists published in the journal eNuero, eye contact is critical to our capacity for empathy.
Trump’s answer, and his lack of eye contact, validated perhaps one of the biggest raps against him: his total inability to empathize with the plight of average Americans. Imagine the points Trump could have scored had he looked directly into the camera and spoke about the frequency with which his thoughts turn to those families who have been impacted by the pandemic and how his heart aches for what they’ve been through.
But Trump is flat out incapable of connecting with people on that level.
This character deficiency is nothing new
. Plenty has been
written about it
. What emerged from last night’s debate that is new is that Donald Trump may well be suffering from “empathy envy.” Although he appears ill equipped to feel for others, his debate responses give the clear impression that he resents the ease with which Biden displays his unique brand of empathy. The proof came when Biden responded to Trump’s full-on assault on his family’s alleged ties to China.
“There’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey
…there’s a reason for it. He doesn’t want to talk about the substantive issues. It’s not about his family and my family, it’s about your family. And your family is hurting badly,” Biden said. “You’re sitting at the kitchen table this morning deciding …. are we going to be able to pay the mortgage?”
Not only did Trump fail to display any compassion in his response, but he openly mocked Biden for his. “That’s a typical political statement
. Let’s get off this China thing and then he looks (motioning to the camera) ‘the family around the table’ and everything, just a typical politician when I see that… C’mon Joe, you can do better.”
The story of the debate was that it was Trump who needed to do “better” and show he cares about the people sitting around those kitchen tables. But every time he was asked to speak directly to a specific group of viewers, he failed miserably. It happened when Kristen Welker asked if he understands the plight of Black parents and the dangers their children face from systemic racism. Trump gave the shortest and most obligatory “yes, I do
” before launching back into attacking Biden.
It also happened when he was asked to speak directly to parents who are apprehensive about the risks of sending their children back to school. He also passed on that opportunity to empathize, opting instead to insist that schools must reopen at all cost.
But for every time Trump refused to directly address the American people, Biden seized the opportunity, on issues ranging from racism to health insurance.
“How many of you home are worried and rolling around in bed tonight wondering what in God’s name are you going to do if you get sick because you’ve lost your health insurance?” Biden asked the American people.
But perhaps the most cold-hearted and callous moment for Trump came in addressing the 500-plus migrant children detained at the border whose parents are missing. After Biden expressed outrage, calling it “criminal,” Trump cavalierly responded with, “They are so well taken care of
, they’re in facilities that were so clean.”
The glaring difference between these two candidates was obvious. By looking viewers squarely in the eye, Biden demonstrated that he has his finger on the pulse of average Americans and their concerns. Trump’s hands, by contrast, were trying to land somewhere else, flailing around as he tried to figuratively grasp the neck of his opponent.
If empathy is indeed on the ballot, Donald Trump came one step closer last night to becoming a one-term President.